When I was seven years old, my best friend and next door neighbor, Bruce, was stung fifteen times by wasps. He was playing hide and seek and somehow bumped up against their nest in a bush. The wasps swarmed to protect their home, and he was completely engulfed in their rage.
I’ve been thinking about Bruce’s bad day a lot lately, realizing that there are not a lot of people out there who would be willing to host these creatures purposefully. I think that convincing anyone to plant a garden to attract wasps would be a hard sell.
Even so, I have found myself really enjoying them in the garden these last couple of years. Somehow, the wasps and I have found a way to peacefully co-exist. They like to tap dance around on the tops of the flat flowers in my garden, such as the zinnias. Soon, the goldenrod will also begin to bloom in brilliant yellow and I’ll have my camera ready to take some pictures. They really love that native plant.
The wasps are fantastic creatures, busy all the time and very efficient. I like to stand in my garden and watch them while I have a strong cup of coffee each morning. It’s a pretty good relationship so far. We each enjoy our drinks and sunshine and no one gets injured.
Being so close to these predators feels a bit like swimming with sharks or petting the lions at the zoo. There’s an element of danger, but also something peaceful and soothing in the graceful way they move. I am simultaneously admiring their slender, strange, alien-like bodies, and fearful that they could turn on me at any moment. I think of my son at these times; I understand his fascination with sharks several years ago. I know where his brain was then. I’m there now, watching the wasps, thinking how their faces are permanently painted with scowls, but their wings and bodies are almost like those of ballet dancers.
According to most sources I found on the bookshelf and online, many larger wasps are not terribly important pollinators in North America. They do some pollinating while they drink up that nectar. But many species are smooth, not fuzzy like bees, so they don’t spread around the pollen that much.
They do, however, help gardeners in other ways. Namely, they feed a lot of pest caterpillars, flies and crickets to their young early in the season. They are fierce predators.
Annoyingly, by the time August and September roll around, the queens stop laying eggs and their nests start to decline. There aren’t any young to feed, and so the adults go out on what could be called a bender for sugar. In addition to the nectar of my flowers, they begin to crave sweet drinks and greasy food. They stay away from my coffee, but if I brought a soda or glass of juice out the garden in the morning there would be trouble for sure.
Yellow jackets, in particular, can really get aggressive. You can control them with some cool gizmos. Most of them involve a bottle containing a small amount of sugary liquid. The mouth of the bottle or container is small; the wasps fly in but they can’t make their way back out. Then later you put the stopper on and let them die slow deaths in the bottle.
I’ve been told these wasp traps can be effective if hung a few feet away from the food table of your picnic. I have no idea if they work, because I always forget to take them out until the picnic is in progress, so mostly I stick to drinking water and try to eat with an eye on what the wasps are doing with each bite I take.
One thing I find particularly annoying at such moments: there are a lot of people who think that bees and wasps are the same. They are not. Most of the time, bees want to steer clear of humans, and stay away from their food. Bees are also incredibly important pollinators and although it is not scientific to say so, bees actually look kind of cute. Here again I think of ocean animals; if wasps are like sharks, then bees are like dolphins – almost dopey or playful in appearance. (Bees can sting… some more than others… and dolphins can bite and be aggressive, but hey… that’s a different article. Some other time, perhaps. This is exactly why I should even bring up the cute aspect to begin with…)
I’ve never actually been stung by a wasp, which might explain why I am so forgiving of their presence in my garden. I do wish the wasps would stop building nests in my favorite wooden bird house. But considering how many hours I spend with my hands in the plants and my back bent over the rows of veggies out there, you’d think I’d have been stung at least once.
I sometimes wonder if it is like that guy called the Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic Channel, Cesar Milan. He says that his calm demeanor around tough, wild dogs earns their respect. Maybe my calm demeanor in the garden makes the wasps respect me. Maybe I can get a show on that channel, too. The Wasp Whisperer.
But considering that I am rarely calm and hardly ever manage to whisper about anything, it is far more likely that I’ve just been lucky so far. After all, it could have easily been me getting stung 15 times on that day long ago during the hide and seek game. If so, this would have been a whole different piece of writing.
Photo by Alvesgaspar http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) via Wikimedia Commons